Blunt: State should oversee federally controlled dams

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Changes would increase the number of state-regulated dams from 600 to 5,000.

ST. LOUIS -- Gov. Matt Blunt proposed new rules Monday that would give Missouri authority over federally regulated dams like the Taum Sauk reservoir, which collapsed in December.

Blunt made his proposal on the recommendation of dam regulators at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The department gave Blunt a report last week outlining sweeping changes that would increase the number of state-regulated dams from 600 to roughly 5,000.

"It is not acceptable to be behind the curve when it comes to protecting our families," Blunt said in a statement. "Dams and reservoirs can be valuable resources, but they must be appropriately monitored to protect Missourians from harm."

Blunt asked the DNR to re-examine Missouri's dam regulations after the Taum Sauk reservoir failed, his spokesman Spence Jackson said. Missouri only monitors dams that are taller than 35 feet and are not regulated by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Dams built for agriculture are also exempt under state law.

Blunt said the DNR should regulate dams taller than 25 feet, along with agricultural dams and federally regulated sites. Expanding the inspection program would require approval from the state legislature, and Blunt's statement called for the General Assembly to approve the changes.

Jackson declined to say how much the program might cost.

"That is something we'll have to work out with the legislature as they continue to work through the budget process," Jackson said in an e-mail.

FERC officials did not return messages Monday seeking comment about Blunt's proposal.

The Taum Sauk accident made DNR officials believe the state should have more control over such dams, said Kurt Schaefer, deputy director of the DNR.

"I think it's logical," Schaefer said. "Most of the federally regulated dams tend to be fairly large dams that pose significant risk if there is a failure."

FERC inspectors gave the Taum Sauk reservoir passing safety marks during annual inspections since at least 1996, according to agency documents. The most recent inspection report approving the facility was filed one day after the reservoir collapsed.

The accident caused about 1 billion gallons of water to sweep through Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, burying vast tracts of it under five feet of mud. The deluge swept away the home of park superintendent Jerry Toops, injuring him, his wife Lisa and their three young children.

If Blunt's proposal is made law, the DNR would have access to engineering plans and maintenance documents of federally regulated dams, Schaefer said. DNR officials would also inspect the dams and might file safety reports independent of FERC's, he said.

About half of Missouri's neighboring states co-regulate dams with FERC, Schaefer said.

St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. owns and operates the Taum Sauk reservoir, and would not comment on Blunt's proposal.

Ameren officials said mechanical errors apparently caused the reservoir to overflow, eroding the reservoir's earthen wall and precipitating the collapse. FERC is investigating.

Ameren managers knew for months that pressure gauges in the reservoir were broken and produced faulty water-level readings, according to company e-mails. Ameren did not inform FERC when the reservoir overflowed in September because managers didn't think it was necessary to report it, according to a company statement.

Attorney General Jay Nixon is conducting a criminal investigation into the collapse.

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